COP26: What is next for the built environment?


George Adams, Director of Energy and Engineering, SPIE UK, shares his insights into how the built environment can co-operate to meet the crucial ambition of reaching net zero by 2050

The 26th annual summit of the UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) has concluded, with positive steps forward on specific issues but still a lot to do. The penultimate day was dedicated to “Cities, Regions and the Built Environment,” and there was a clear recognition of the fact that the sector is capable of doing more to help solve climate challenges and reduce emissions. Around the globe, many cities continue to be vulnerable to poor air quality standards, along with rising sea levels in a warming world.

With discussions and agreements made by heads of state and climate experts – we can only see this as a positive step in the right direction as 197 countries have agreed to a new deal, the Glasgow Climate Pact. This outlines measurements to avoid dangerous climate change by limiting global warming to well below 2°C and pursuing efforts to limit it to 1.5°C.

The built environment is approaching half of global carbon emissions following on from the 2019 report by the World Green Building Council (WGBC), far higher than any other individual sector. As such, it has a critical role to play in the decarbonisation of global economies and societies. It is obvious that investment in this sector is needed if the climate change targets set out at Glasgow are to be met. However, with the relationship between the built environment and sustainable development being so complex in nature, how might we move forward?

Engineers, architects, and overall decision makers need to consider building in conjunction with owners and operators to integrate their activities with the natural world

We must change our thinking and achieve a sustainable space for humanity – the sooner we make this paradigm shift, the better off we will be. As it stands, building as we do currently is too costly to the environment. It is also not creating healthy spaces for us to live and work in with active transport and green spaces.

Of the emissions generated by the built environment, as stated by WGBC, building operations account for 28% annually, while building materials and construction are responsible for the additional 11%. In some analysis carried out in 2020 and 2021 by Global Efficiency Intel, Imperial College London, and the World Economic Forum, it was found that global production of steel, concrete, and aluminium is responsible for a combined 22% of total global emissions.

What these findings highlight is that hard engineering solutions can play a major role in helping mitigate climate change. Recycling materials and reusing buildings would drastically cut the emissions from materials production. Where new buildings are necessary to meet population growth, decision makers should minimise the amount of materials used, recycling and repurposing materials and existing infrastructure to work at a zero operational carbon cost. Becoming adept at repurposing is also important because, according to a 2019 report by WBGC, 80% of the buildings standing today will still be in use by 2050. We need to futureproof these offices, homes and the built environment within economic centres and adapt our urban environments to work alongside the inevitable future climate change we are facing.

Our health is directly impacted by the built environment around us. According to Public Health England, between 2017 and 2025, the total cost to the NHS and social care of air pollution – where there is robust evidence for an association – is estimated to be £1.60 billion for PM2.5 and NO2 combined. This increases to £5.56 billion if we include other diseases.

Decisions about the built environment are routinely made by city planners, architects, political leaders, financiers, and public service officials. Given the costs and health concerns, it seems logical that public health professionals should be invited to these decisions as we think more about climate adaption. We have made significant progress in principle, but more is needed and that does mean the built environment has got to be part of that equation.

Not enough policies and legislation

In order to reach their decarbonisation targets, countries around the world must implement tough policies. It is all well and good to have a roadmap to decarbonise the economy but without legislation, action is optional and often very little changes as a result. We must integrate energy efficiency in urban planning policies, develop decarbonisation strategies and implement mandatory building energy codes for new builds. Most importantly, we must use the existing stock of buildings and retrofit to prioritise energy efficiency renovations. There are no sensible reasons why this should not be in legislation, and the fact that this is not yet happening is a failure of both policy and industry.

Futureproofing our industry through education

We need to educate more people on the role that buildings and cities can play in addressing the climate crisis, and highlight the solutions, to show how we can get the sector to net zero. When coupled with clean energy sources, we can produce low energy and low carbon buildings with the technology and materials existing. But considerations regarding where the materials are coming from must be addressed, especially as our population continues to grow, and therefore, so does consumption. We need to consider “where” and “how” these materials were sourced and produced, and how they should be utilised fairly.

We need more education in our schools and chartered institutes that are focused on how to make the built environment more sustainable for future generations to come. This should be embedded in the certifications for engineers, architects, and city planners. Ultimately, we need to give those responsible for creating change the tools and expertise they need, and then use legislation to hold them accountable for using what they have learnt to strive for a low carbon future.

COP26 and the commitment to achieve carbon emissions reduction across the globe is humanity’s biggest challenge. This conference sets the parameters on how to protect the planet, but those parameters mean nothing if action is not taken. The built environment knows that it has a significant role to play. In the time between now and the next COP, it should use its creativity and problem-solving abilities to make a massive difference.


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